‘If you recognise fear in yourself you are more able to see it in others’

By Caspar Glyn on

At first, Caspar Glyn QC assumed the terror he felt before appearing in court was a disadvantage. But, over time, he has come to appreciate its benefits…

I was terrified when I started working as a barrister. I was terrified because most of the other barristers I was ever against were obviously cleverer than me, could talk the legs off several herds of donkeys, knew all the answers to any case, knew all the ins-and-outs of other chambers and how rubbish their barristers could be.

These barristers could tell you that Mr Justice X had never understood a contract and Mrs Justice Z would never give you that order as if they knew them. These barristers seemed everywhere and they all seemed to be on a fast track to silk if not the Supreme Court.

Not me. I was consumed by doubt. What if I just forgot my submissions? Dried up? Forgot my case? Missed the killer authority? Asked my client the wrong question? Did not ask the right question in cross-examination? Sick with terror. Literally. Physically.

As a junior barrister one could not admit to any weakness. You developed a carapace under which you hid your doubts — “fear en croute” — hoping that no one ever broke that thin hard-baked crumbly crust to expose the cowering below.

I wish that I had known then that everyone is scared, and that fear makes you stronger and better as a lawyer. Many would not use the word fear but everyone is scared in the performance world of advocacy.

Frankly, everyone is bluffing it. Another QC who is an eminent, senior leader of the employment Bar, who always seemed to me to be absolutely to the manor born, “a natural”, spoke to me about his first trial in silk. He described standing up in court in his new and expensively bought finery, in the front row, wearing his tailored waistcoat crowned by his newly-bought gown and addressing the judge: he said that he felt as if he had gone to work as a child and was wearing his dad’s clothes.

It’s true isn’t it? At whatever stage we are. Whether it is as a graduate lawyer, a Bar student, a pupil, a trainee, a junior barrister or a silk, we all feel, initially, as if we don’t belong. As if we are impostors and will be found out.

If fear affects you then let it be the key as it was for me: the key that allowed me to make the most of myself. I was so scared at others’ intellect that I would read articles from journals and research even the most mundane point on unfair dismissal. I was so worried about forgetting my submissions that I wrote them out just in case and read them, again and again. And again. My cross examinations became a study of obsessive compulsive disorder, of cross references and then criss-crossed references stretching 1990s word processors to breaking point. Fear of failure led me to staying up all night on the last night of the trial whenever written submissions were necessary; crafting them over and over until they were just so.

If you are like me and fearful, then our self doubt, our worry, can be our greatest strength. It makes us care about doing the best that we can for our client, not letting anyone down, not allowing any stone to be unturned. It prompts us to do all that we can and often far more than we are paid to do, or is healthy for our lives, in order that we can give our client the best chance of winning.

Fear is not just a key to driving us on. If you recognise it in yourself then you are more able to see it in others. From that you realise that you are not alone, however your opponent is trying to cover up. The opponent who fights his case outside court nervous perhaps of fighting it inside, the aggressive opponent externalising their fear by being obnoxious, the opponent with the loquacious overbearing approach, the quiet opponent with the unsteady hand, the opponent who stumbles over his introduction or saying the wrong word and not noticing it.

We learn to recognise it in judges who have difficult litigants or a difficult and complex decision to make, and who are worried about appellate courts. Our ability to recognise our fear in ourselves lets us acknowledge it, and not only draw comfort from it but use it.

If we are scared, what about our poor client? In a court or tribunal they are likely to feel completely at sea. Their livelihood, their house, their liberty may be on the line. The course of the next ten or twenty years of their life, or even the whole of it, may be determined in your company. Reassuring a client, letting them trust in you and relaxing them in this strange world is easier if you understand the fear which grips your client. So too is it easier not to take offence if your client strikes out at you, blames you or appears irrational. It is only their fear talking.

The thing that differentiates the person who wants to be an advocate from others is not the fear that you feel before you perform. It is the sheer buzz that you get from doing it and the burning desire to do it again, although you know that you will be really scared again before you start.

So, do I still feel fear before I stand up? Well, now that I am established in silk I could not possibly admit to it of course. But I am told, if it is relevant, that I am still prone to having an unsteady hand before court.

Caspar Glyn QC is a barrister specialising in employment and sports law at Cloisters Chambers.